The Comparisons of Earthly Things

During our recent visit to the Nashville Parthenon, I was struck by how close the imitation matched my mental image of the actual Parthenon as it existed thousands of years ago. However, even more striking was the reproduction of the Athena statue in its full gilt and coloring. Unlike the copies of the crumbling Elgin Marbles and the inaccurate concrete structure, the statue is reproduced in an ideal form, seemingly untouched by the decay of time and war. I could imagine the rest of the original Parthenon as it existed long ago, but the Athena statue was so other-worldly, almost ethereal, that I struggled to make sense of it.

The overwhelming glory of Athena

My struggle with the statue of Athena reminded me of Keats’ struggle with understanding the words of Moneta. At the beginning of the second canto, she assures him of her intent:

“‘Mortal, that thou may’st understand aright,

I humanize my sayings to thine ear,

Making comparisons of earthly things;

Or thou might’st better listen to the wind…'” (Lines 1-4)

Moneta speaks as if she changes her speech for Keats to make her message more understandable. As Moneta is herself a statue, I found that some interesting connections could be drawn between her and the Athena statue in the Parthenon. For the Greeks, the statue represented a bearable image of their otherwise unbearably glorious patroness. It was an imperfect copy of the pure goddess in order to shield worshippers from the overwhelming splendor of the real deal. For us, the statue serves the same purpose with the ancient Parthenon. Despite the meticulous work of historians, we cannot perfectly imagine what the Parthenon looked like thousands of years ago. The statue points us to an ideal, a “perfect” Parthenon that only exists in our minds but is too glorious to see in reality. We must be satisfied with a copy, a fake, a reproduction of a brighter lost age.

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~ by lostinthekeys on October 23, 2012.

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